Microsoft's retail stores could be their smartest move in a decade. If they don't screw it up - look at Vista - it's their chance to win back consumers before they become the Edsel of consumer software.
Microsoft's successful pursuit of the enterprise has come at high cost: they've lost sight of consumer wants and needs. And since consumers do most of the buying they've ceded the high ground to Apple's consumer-based resurgence.
What could go wrong?
Think Zune with 7-year leases. Brown stores. Bob-style cute. BSOD at the checkout. Ads that make you go "huh?"
Let's not go there. Here's what right will look like.
- Hire the Starbucks design team. And give them 18 months to try every idea they can think of before locking it down. Microsoft's usual "good enough" design process - brown Zune, anyone? - will kill them.
- Showcase the coolest hardware - regardless of vendor. Nothing will kill buzz faster than store full of blah boxes.
- Xbox. Apple has nothing like it. The trick will be keeping the Jr. High kids from taking over the store every day at 4. Focus on how gaming is for the whole family to share.
- Software. There's lots of cool software for Windows and little of it comes from Redmond. Pick winners - see hardware above - and get your people trained to demo it. And some in-store tech support.
- Storage and networks. Windows owns the low-end market - which means a notebook for everyone in the family. How to share and protect family memories? Answer that question simply and clearly and you'll drive a lot of business.
What about Apple?
Apple has done a fabulous job with their stores when you consider how thin the product line is: iPods; 4 notebooks; a few desktops; a couple of routers and storage boxes; Apple TV; and a phone. No wonder their stores look like the Museum of Modern Art.
Apple's challenge is to get people just as excited about Mac software as they do about the hardware. That isn't easy, but that's where long-term loyalty comes from.
The Storage Bits take
The core issue in retail is brand. Apple has a great brand and Microsoft, well, not so great. Microsoft's challenge will be articulate a brand that derives organically from who they are, rather than something slapped on by an ad agency.
Lose the enterprise double-speak. Don't try to be hip - you're the Toyota of computing - not the BMW.
The 2 most important things are this. Get the details right, which means research, design, test, refine until you get it right - no matter how long it takes. And remember it isn't about you: it's about how people build computing into their everyday lives.
It won't be easy. But if you succeed it will be well worth it.
Comments welcome, of course. I got some inspiration from a blog that covers multi-touch interfaces called Point and do. Check it out if you're a design geek.